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Are You a Good "Mind-Reader?"

A peek into an empathy questionnaire used by psychological researchers

Can you read my mind?

Do you think this guy is:

(a) playful
(b) comforting
(c) irritated
(d) bored 

Being able to "mind-read" is a unique and important human trait. Being high in emotional intelligence and empathy helps us smoothly navigate our social world and communicate effectively with other people. Not everyone, however, is an emotion-decoding master. 

One of the tests that psychologists use to assess people's level of emotional recognition (also called empathy, emotion decoding, theory of mind, or "mind reading") is the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" task.  During this task, you do exactly what I had you do above - you look at 36 different pairs of eyes and for each you pick one emotion out of four possible choices (though they aren't all actually emotions, unless someone added "joking," "flirtatious," and "decisive" to the emotion dictionary). I thought I'd share this task with you today for a few reasons.

First, its always nice to get a peek behind the scenes and find out what is actually going on in the research you read about. Do you believe the results? To make that decision, it helps to know whether you think their methods and measures are valid. This task is used frequently in research on empathy and emotional recognition.

Second, this task is hilarious. The pictures are pretty awful as you can see above. Some of the emotion choices are pretty amusing as well. Not to bash my field, but when you are taking the test, its kind of hard to believe its real. And what better way to have some fun and take a break from work than take a test that looks like it was developed in the 70's during the days of shag carpets?

Third, despite the above comments, this task actually seems to be picking up on something meaningful. This task was developed by Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, he's the cousin of the infamous Sacha Baron-Cohen, though I bet he would prefer if that wasn't always brought up every time he was mentioned), who researches autism. Baron-Cohen found that people who were autistic did worse on this task than healthy controls, as do people with frontotemporal dementia. Researchers have also found that women tend to do better on this task than men, and people are more successful at the task if the eyes are from someone of the same culture versus another culture. They've even found that babies exposed to higher rates of fetal testosterone do worse on this task as children than those with lower rates of fT. Perhaps most impressively, in one study when men were given intranasal oxytocin (a supposed "empathy gene"), they performed better on the task than men who didn't have oxytocin shot up their nose. This difference was particularly pronounced for the more difficult emotion decoding items.

Convinced enough to try it? I was, and I did. At the beginning of the test that I took, they had the following disclaimer: "Most people surprise themselves by how well they do in this test." Well, that was true for me. As I was taking the test, I felt pretty confident for some of the eyes, but clueless for many others.

Still, I somehow ended up with a 31/36 (I took the test again two years later and got a 32/36, so it seems to be a fairly reliable test). What does this mean? Well, the typical score is in the range 22-30. If you score over 30, this indicates you may be quite good at undestanding someone's mental state based on facial cues (yay me!). A score under 22 indicates you may find it difficult to understand a person's mental state based on their appearance.

I must admit, I was pretty relieved to do so well. Given that I study perspective taking as part of my research, it'd be pretty embarrassing if I'd done poorly! And for the ones I did miss... my favorites were mistaking "fantasizing" for "concerned," and "irritated" for "preoccupied." Maybe that last one is why I'm always asking my husband what's wrong when he's just deep in thought.

So now its your turn. Go here to do the task and then come back here and let me know how you did! If you aren't going to take the test, you can still let me know what you think the answer is for the picture posted at the top.

Important psychological disclaimer: If you do not do well on this task, it does not mean you do not have a lot of empathy or are not good at decoding emotions. This is just one task to measure emotional recognition and psychologists use tasks like these to determine whether, on average, people in a certain group perform better than people in a different group. 

Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D. is a post-doctoral scholar in Social-Personality Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. 

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